Surry broadband project continues moving forward

By Michael Campbell News Editor

A project that has been underway for nearly ten years continues to make progress toward its ultimate goal as county officials begin discussions with a broadband provider that could provide services to residents and businesses in the county.

During an update to the county board of supervisors last week, Rhonda Russell, Surry’s director of planning, provided background information on the project and new details in regards to fiber and wireless rate resolutions.

In September, Lon Whelchel, representing SCS Broadband, Inc., based out of Arrington, conveyed interest in negotiating an agreement for use of Surry’s owned fiber and wireless infrastructure to deploy wireless subscription services to residents and businesses.

Since 2008, the county worked to deploy approximately 23,000 linear feet of fiber across Surry, navigating its way through the Surry Industrial Park and “along major thoroughfares in the Town of Surry, the county’s government and business center,” according to county documents.

Those documents add that the county owns a “350-foot dual purpose communication tower, to serve public safety and wireless Internet service providers.”

All construction activities wrapped up on the project at the end of the 2015 calendar year.

According to their website, AcelaNet, home of SCS Broadband Internet Service, has been providing Internet to “rural Central Virginia homes and businesses with the best connection possible to the Internet.”

The Planning Department noted since Whelchel’s and SCS Broadband’s appearance at September’s meeting, “staff has coordinated a draft lease agreement with Mr. Jeff Gore, Esquire, patterned after terms adopted by Nelson County and Charles City County,” which is “being considered by SCS Broadband.”

Additionally, the county reports that SCS is “contracting with other entities to formalize agreements for connectivity between Surry County and neighboring jurisdictions where service is also proposed.”

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency Surry has partnered with since the beginning of the project in 2008, proposed launching a new telecommunications grant opportunity for “expanding broadband service, which requires a partnership between localities and private providers,” something the county reports Whelchel and SCS Broadband is interested in working with the county on.

According to documents, the DHCD has invested more than $100 million each year into housing and community development project, all in an effort to “create safe, affordable and prosperous communities to live, work and do business in Virginia.”

So far, they have worked on 42 telecommunication planning efforts covering more than 60 localities, provided more than 15 implementation grants, covering over 19 localities and, since 2007, the DHCD has invested $485,000 in Community Development Block Grants funds in planning grants and $4 million worth of implementation grants.

As part of the new grant program proposed by the agency, applicants must be units of local government, such as towns, counties, broadband/wireless authorities, among others, and they must have a private sector provider as a co-applicant.

The DHCD said the grant would “provide financial assistance to supplement construction costs by private sector providers to extend services to areas that are presently unserved by any broadband provider,” with an “unserved area” defined as an area getting Internet speeds of less than 10 megabits per second download and one megabit per second upload.

The median home Internet speed in the commonwealth is 10.9 megabits per second, according to data provided by the DHCD.

As part of the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, $1.2 million the first year and another $1.2 million the second year from the state’s general fund would be used to fund grants for selected localities.

Additionally, in order to receive the funding, the applying area “must meet the unserved criteria,” must not be designated to receive funds for construction through the federal Connect America Fund, which is a program by the Federal Communications Commission that seeks to “expand the benefits of high-speed Internet to millions of consumers in every part of the country” by changing the long-standing Universal Service Fund into the CAF, focused on broadband, and the area must not be receiving state or federal funds for construction.

The application deadline for the grant is tentatively set for Nov. 30.

Russell and her staff also noted during the update to the board that fiber and wireless rate resolutions are “not standard procedure” across the board for access to telecommunication infrastructure, pointing to Nelson and Charles City counties as examples.

According to the county, Charles City has not formally adopted rates, whereas Nelson has a formal rate resolution.

In April, Surry adopted rates for use of the county’s tower by Internet service providers “patterned after Nelson County Broadband Authority’s adopted rates.” As part of the adoption of rates, which are not subscriber rates, an ISP would be charged $275 per antenna for the first three antenna, along with $150 per additional antenna installed by the same lessee along the “top thirty-feet in ten-foot sections.”

For the next thirty-feet in ten-foot sections of the 350-foot tower, it would be $175 per antenna for the first three units, then an additional $90 per additional antenna installed by the same lessee.

Additionally, the county’s adopted resolution notes that “all tower access charges are in addition to a site access fee of $200 per month,” which entitles lessee access to electrical power and ground space for cabinets.

Russell and her staff suggested, “at this juncture,” the county not amend the adopted rate resolutions, instead “consider individual lease agreements with incentives on a case-by-case basis,” there by giving the county more flexibility to negotiate with prospective lessees.

Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications

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